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Colombia: crisis looms as thousands of civilians caught up in fighting, UN warns

Colombia: crisis looms as thousands of civilians caught up in fighting, UN warns

After months of deterioration, the humanitarian situation in parts of southern Colombia has reached a critical stage, with thousands of civilians caught up in fighting or forced to flee, the United Nations refugee agency warned today in its latest alert on a country where more than four decades of conflict have driven 3 million people from their homes.

“We are calling on the government to address this ongoing crisis, which has caused several waves of mass displacement this year,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman William Spindler told a news briefing in Geneva.

In northern Nariño near the border with Ecuador, more than 800 people were forced to leave their homes last week to escape fighting between two irregular armed groups and seek refuge in Los Andes, the largest village in the area, where they are being sheltered in the local school and in private homes. A UNHCR team on the ground reported overcrowding and lack of food for the displaced in the village.

This is the third time this year that the municipality faces a mass influx of people displaced by violence. Also for the third time this year, Awa indigenous communities in two reservations are trapped in renewed fighting between the army and an irregular armed group amid reports that they are not allowed to leave to seek aid. Humanitarian organizations have not had access to the area.

Schools on the territories have once again been closed, further disrupting the education of hundreds of children who were unable to complete the last school year because of an earlier wave of fighting in July, when 1,200 Awa fled to escape the violence. Five of them were murdered in the village of Altaquer, where they had sought shelter, on World Indigenous Day on 9 August. Their killers have still not been identified.

“We once again call on all actors in the armed conflict in Colombia to respect international humanitarian law, the right to freedom of movement and the right of civilians to seek safety both inside and outside their country,” Mr. Spindler said.

Today’s warning was just the latest in a long series on Colombia that UNHCR has issued in recent years. Just last week, the agency said dozens of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities in the north-west were at risk. It has also warned that some indigenous communities displaced from land to which they are tied by their culture and traditions are in danger of disappearing altogether.

Colombia contains the largest population of concern to UNHCR in any country in the world as more than 40 years of fighting between the Government, leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries have hit most regions of the Andean country. There are also some 250,000 Colombians of concern to the agency who have fled to Ecuador.